What’s the hardest thing about being a CRC pastor who is also addicted to alcohol?
“I thought I was supposed to be the one to help people. And now I realize I’m the one who needs help.”
Since the onset of COVID 19, Pastor Church Resources (PCR) has observed an increase in reports from churches concerned about their pastor’s use or abuse of alcohol. To understand the dynamics such churches and pastors may be dealing with, PCR interviewed an active CRC minister who's been in recovery from alcohol addiction for two years. This pastor began the interview with a qualifier common to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. “Everybody’s story is different. But there’s always something you’ll identify with. Don’t compare. But identify with what you can identify with.” Here’s a glimpse of this pastor’s story, using his own words, edited for structure and length.
“I didn’t really drink until I started seminary. And even then, I was able to control it reasonably well. I could go weeks, even months, without drinking. But, inevitably, I would start again. I have what people in AA sometimes call a “high bottom”. I never lost a job because of drinking. I never got a DUI. My wife never left me. I didn’t fit the stereotype of what I thought an alcoholic is. I wasn’t living under a bridge. I didn’t come from an alcoholic family.
“Because I had a narrow concept of what an alcoholic was, I was able to convince myself I wasn’t one. I figured that the only reason I couldn’t control my drinking as well as other people was because I started drinking later in life. I figured it was just a matter of time before I figured out how to drink like everyone else [under control].
“I experienced so much shame around my drinking. I wondered, “What’s wrong with me? What’s broken with me that others can drink but I can’t?” I tried to cope with the shame by trying harder. I spent about fifteen years trying to manage my drinking through what I now call, “hopeless perfectionism.” I’d white-knuckle it, going months without drinking. But then I’d start again. And when I started again, it was worse than the time before. At first, I’d only drink on Friday nights, since I had to lead worship on Sunday. Then, I’d also drink on Monday night after council to “relieve stress”. I’d bargain with myself-- “I’ll go one week without drinking.” I’d make it two days.”
PCR: What was different two years ago?
“I lost a dear friend under tragic circumstances. The grief of that was enormous. When my friend died, it was the end of a season where I had been leading a lot of funerals at the church. The grief was piling up.
“Here’s the thing about alcohol and bad feelings. Alcohol works. It numbs those feelings. It works...until it really, really doesn’t.
“A few months after my friend's death, I found myself in another friend’s basement during a backyard party. I excused myself to go to the “bathroom” but I was really sneaking to his basement bar, pouring shot after shot. I drove my family home drunk. It was bad. My wife was furious. It was a miracle we made it home.
“The next morning, before the Sunday worship service began, I approached a member of my church and asked for more information about AA. Years earlier, this member had come up to me and said, “I just want you to know, I’m a part of AA. If you ever want to know more about the program, I’d be happy to take you.”
“When I told him I wanted to know more, I hoped he’d just promise me an email that afternoon. Instead, he pulled out his phone. There’s an app for AA, because, of course there is. He found a meeting in our area and said, “I’ll pick you up at 7 tonight.”
“I went to that meeting, and then another the next day. I got rid of the alcohol in my house, but I still couldn’t say, “I’m an alcoholic.”
Then, a few days later, I found myself in my bathroom, alone, just sobbing. I realized I’d spent the entire day thinking about nothing but getting a drink. The next day, I was meeting with my therapist, whom I had been seeing since my friend’s death. It took me all session. But as I was getting ready to leave, I finally said it: “I’m an alcoholic.”
PCR: Folks in recovery sometimes talk about being “happy, joyous and free.” Was it “happy, joyous and free” from that time on?
“It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Just saying I was an alcoholic. Now I’ve told over thirty people outside of AA rooms. It’s always a little nerve-racking to say it, but it’s gotten a little easier. I’ve got a sponsor. I work the program. I work the steps. And I’m doing well. I don’t feel the burden anymore. But it was hard.
“It’s really hard to manage all the stuff that comes up when you begin recovery. You’re dealing with a huge number of heavy emotions and feelings, but you no longer have alcohol to help you cope.
“But I realize it's all grace. I have experienced God’s grace at a more personal level than I was aware of before. I begin each day “Lord, I’m so grateful for my sobriety. It is not something I have accomplished. It is a gift from you.” I think of my sobriety as a gift I’m given each morning and asked by God to steward throughout the day. Every night I thank God for another day.”
“But that gift [of sobriety] is so precious and fragile, I don’t dare attempt to carry it alone. I go to meetings. When things are hard, just focus on basics: don’t drink today. Do a little reading [of The Big Book]. Talk to your sponsor. Don’t drink today.”
PCR: What’s it like to be a pastor dealing with alcoholism? How about a pastor during COVID?
“A lot of AA is really familiar to someone who grows up in the faith. Needing a higher power? Unable to save yourself? That’s basic Christian stuff.”
“What I want to say to pastors is, “this is a really hard time to be a pastor. All the pressure everyone is under... this would be the ‘perfect’ time for a problem to come up.
“But, also, change is possible. More than anything, I’ve seen grace in action. If you have a problem with alcohol, you can die from it or you can get sober. Two options. But there is hope and there is peace and there is joy. It is possible!
“Another good friend died some time after I had begun recovery. But I never exactly feared I’d drink. I went to some extra meetings, had an extra conversation with my sponsor, spent more time in prayer, but I never seriously considered drinking. That’s really different.”
PCR: What should someone do if they suspect they have a problem with alcohol?
“Check out AA.org. Go to a meeting. One good thing from COVID is that there are tons of meetings online. And you can find one starting any time of day.
“One thing we sometimes say in meetings, if you don’t have a problem, just try controlling your drinking. Tell a friend that you’re going to quit drinking for six weeks. Or tell a friend you’re only going to have one drink. See how you do.
“Read the first two chapters of the Big Book, available online. If you don’t identify with anything in there, you’re probably not an alcoholic.
“But most of all, remember there’s grace. I have a friend who is what we might call a “dry drunk.” He hasn’t had a drink in years, but he says, “I think about drinking all the time.” That’s not ‘happy, joyous and free.’ This is basic gospel stuff. Hopeless perfectionism? White knuckle it? Your hero-mode is going to wear off eventually. It’ll be bad. Remember there’s grace. Grace abounds.”
PCR: What should I do if I think someone I love has a problem?
“Talk to them. Let the tone be one of love. Do a little homework on resources. Let them know there’s resources.” [Note also Al-Anon, groups for loved ones of alcoholics.]
PCR: What if that someone is our pastor?
“Same tone. Love. But also, with everyone, let them know there are consequences. “We want to help you get the help you need. But you need to know you can’t be drunk. If you get drunk, here’s the consequence.”
“The Big Book has a short chapter addressed “To Employers.” I think a church council would benefit from reading that. You have to have boundaries and support. Not everyone’s recovery begins the same way. Some do rehab. Some go to the hospital. Some do counseling. Many do (AA) meetings."
PCR: Anything else you want to make sure people know?
“Two things. One, I wish someone had told me (though, they probably did and I just didn’t hear it) that alcoholism can look a lot of different ways. Two, grace abounds. My recovery has been hard, but it’s also been good. I’m a better husband, a better father, a better pastor, because of God’s grace.”
If you are a pastor and think you may have a problem with alcohol or any other addiction, in addition to the above suggestions, contact your regional pastor or PCR. Our posture will be one of helping you lean into grace by confidentially listening to you and pointing you to Christ, helping you lean into recovery by pointing you to resources like AA, and helping you lean into transparency by equipping you for a conversation with trusted leaders at your church.
If you are a member of your church’s leadership team and you need, in addition to the above suggestions, extra help having conversations about alcohol or other addictions with your pastor, PCR is available to listen confidentially, encourage and advise.